June 05, 2015

Environment lacked attention in Naveen’s Odisha

If Odisha, under the rule of Naveen Patnaik from 2000 to 2015, has achieved significant economic growth, it also carries with it the story of pollution, deforestation and environmental degradation.

Counting on mining, industrialisation and large infrastructure as key sectors for economic development of Odisha, the government under Naveen's leadership has failed to address environmental issues that affect life in most mining and industrial hubs.
Mining, Industries and Pollution 

In 2007, Time magazine ranked Sukinda, which contains one of the largest open cast chromite ore mines in the world, as world’s third most polluted place with 60% of the drinking water containing hexavalent chromium at levels more than double the international standards and about 85% of deaths caused due to chromite related diseases.

Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index (CEPI) 2009 of the Central Pollution Control Board of India classified industrial and mining clusters of Angul-Talcher, Ib Valey and Jharsuguda as critically polluted and unsuitable for human habitation. Though government, with support of State Pollution Control Board, has implemented action plans to control pollution in those areas, the level has only come down to alarming level at Ib Valley with a score of 59.73, as per CEPI 2013. Scoring 72.86 and 73.331 respectively, situation in Angul-Talcher and Jharsuguda continues to be critical with degraded air as well as water quality.

Mangrove depletion

As Naveen Patnaik ascended to power as Chief Minister of Odisha in the aftermath of the severest natural disaster, the super cyclone of 1999, which almost shattered the economy of coastal Odisha, the major challenge before his government was to restore the lost greenery and initiate action to check development induced environmental degradation.

Since deforestation and loss of mangrove along the coast were believed to be the reasons of the massive damage caused by the super cyclone, coastal afforestation and generation of thick mangrove belt were suggested by several experts and agencies. Reports say, the mangrove cover had come down to less than 190 square KMs from 500 sq. KMs in a period of four decades from 1960.

Though the Odisha government, under central plan scheme, has taken up programmes for conservation and management of mangroves at different locations like Bhitarkanika, Mahanadi delta, Dhamara, Devi-Kadua, Subarnarekha and at places around Chilika lake, activists working in areas of coastal livelihood and environment say, the mangrove cover is still very less in the state as compared to what it was 50 years ago.

Despite significant increase in frequency and severity of cyclone during last few years with the Odisha coast hit by cyclonic storms like Phailin and Hud Hud, strong actions for mangrove conservation and regeneration are still awaited from the government.

As per newspaper reports, conversion of mangrove forest land into paddy fields and shrimp farms leads to denudation of mangrove patches in the northern coasts of Odisha, making mockery of all conservation programmes. It’s also a fact that mangrove ecosystems in the state have been largely threatened due to increasing human interference and developmental activities like raising ports and port based infrastructure.

Coastal erosion

Development projects along the coast have not only resulted in loss of mangrove but have also accelerated coastal erosion at many points. As per national assessment of shoreline change (NASC) 2011, for Odisha coast, “significant alteration of the sediment budget by the construction of the ports, river sediment inflow etc., have had significant effects on the present day shoreline.”

“Erosion (high, medium and low erosion) accounts for 36.8% of the coast,” says the assessment report suggesting that 8.2% of the coastline experiences high erosion.

Despite the fact that thousands of families have been displaced and coastal economy, mostly agrarian and fisheries based, and ecology affected due to erosion, the issue has not been given adequate importance.

The government has, however, started a geo-synthetic wall project at Pentha, a high erosion point in Kendrapada, under the World Bank funded Integrated Coastal Zone Management Project to restrict further erosion. While the effectiveness and other ecological impacts of the project are yet to be seen, environmental activists term it as a treatment of the symptom, not the cause.

As per the NASC report, “zones of erosion is obvious to the north of ports such as Gopalpur, Paradip and Anantpur ports and to the south of Dhamra and Astaranga ports.” As Industrial and infrastructural projects like ports near the coast are believed to be the reason of accelerated erosion, government’s plan to have 15 ports along the Odisha coast with private investment raises fear of further erosion and devastating impact on coastal ecology and the turtle breeding sites, which place Odisha in the world wildlife map.

Mentioning that the Super Cyclone of 1999 completely devastated the entire coastal ecosystem in the state that, because of its geographical location along the Bay of Bengal with a 480 kilometres coastline, is regularly exposed to hydro-meteorological and sea-level related hazards, disaster risk reduction practitioner Jyotiraj Patra notes in his report “Coasts, Ports and Communities: The Emerging Dynamics of Investment-Risk Interactions in Odisha, India” that “investments, mostly around development of infrastructures for ports and port-related activities, modify and very often reconfigure the entire social-ecological systems in these biologically diverse but hazard-prone coastal regions.”

The series of ports planned along the coast, if all realised, is not only going to affect the coastal ecosystem badly and increase vulnerability to disasters but also to the forest cover in the state by encouraging mining and related industrialisation to meet the demands of the ports.

Shrinking carbon sink

“Most of Orissa’s (Odisha was earlier spelt as Orissa) mineral deposits are in forests that are inhabited by tribal populations and harbour rich biodiversity. Mineral extraction therefore has disproportionately affected forest ecosystems and the forest dwelling population,” says a research paper titled “Mine over matter? Health, wealth, and forests in a mining area of Orissa.” So, forest cover of the state is largely threatened by mining and mineral based industries as well as infrastructure projects in forest areas.

New Delhi based development journalist and filmmaker Subrat Kumar Sahu writes in his report “Destroyed by development,” published in the Infochange, “Of the 5,813,700 hectares of ‘categorised’ forest area in the state, mineral reserves have been identified on some 3,500,000 hectares; that’s more than 60% of the total forest area.” To substantiate, Sahu quotes Orissa’s former steel and mines minister Raghunath Mohanty as saying, in a June 2009 press release, “preliminary exploration for mining had already been done on 3,100,000 hectares of forestland.”

As per the Odisha economic survey report 2014-15, while proposals covering an area of 42371.86 hectare of forest land have been approved for non-forest use till the end of January 2014, mining alone has the share of 18,515.03 hectares in it. Further, a reply submitted by the union ministry of environment, forest and climate change in parliament informs that 4516 hectare of forest land have been diverted for non-forest purpose in the year 2014 only.

Taken together, about 46,900 hectare of forest land have been diverted for non-forest purposes like mining, related industries and various infrastructure projects in forest areas. As forests act as the biggest carbon sink, to the environmental activists, such diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes is certainly a matter of concern. It’s worth mentioning here that, as per a 2008-09 calculation, the annual carbon gain of the available forests in Odisha is over 5 million tonne.

Even though the norm says that “whenever a proposal for diversion of forest land for non-forestry purpose is approved by Central Government, there is a stipulation to raise Compensatory Afforestation over equivalent non-forest land or over twice the degraded forest land,” compensatory afforestation has been raised over 2113.60 hectares only, by the end 2013-14, as per Odisha economic survey 2014-15.

Both very dense and moderately dense forest areas, which are integral to the ecosystem, are in a declining trend. As per state of forest reports, the graph of very dense forest area shows continuous decline and goes like 7077 sq. KM in 2005, 7068 in 2007, 7060 in 2011 and 7042 in 2013. The area of moderately dense forest also declined from 21,421 sq. KM in 2005 to 21,376 in 2007, 21,366 in 2011 and 21, 298 in 2013. However, open forest area has increased from 20,477 in 2011 to 22,007 sq. KM in 2013, as per survey report.

Citing that the Ministry of Forest and Environment (MoEF) fixed targets for afforestation over 2.15 lakh hectare (ha) in 2011-12, over 1.73 lakh ha in 2012-13 and over 1.72 lakh ha in 2013-14 in order to increase forest and tree cover as envisaged in National Forest Policy, the CAG report 2014 notes that the state achieved 85 per cent of the target in the first year while the shortfall in achievement in subsequent two years has been 38 per cent and 32 per cent respectively.

To imagine the magnitude of the loss, as one sq. KM is equal to 100 hectares and one hectare is as big as a cricket ground, defines Suresh Ediga, a New York based software professional and data journalist.

When forest cover in the state is at 32.33% against the national average of 33%, as per state of forest report 2013, and the primary challenge before the government is to compensate the lost and degraded forest cover by planting trees in the open forest areas, CAG report smells corruption in plantation programmes and points out that, in eight forest divisions, an amount of about 48.86 lakhs rupees from the plantation fund have instead been diverted to carry out plantation in areas not suitable for aforestation.

Climate change

Deforestation and industrialisation have largely contributed to climate change in Odisha. As a result, the rainfall pattern has changed and extreme weather days causing cyclonic storms, flash floods, dry spell and drought like situation have become frequent.

“Out of 1,482 mm rainfall, about 500 mm to 700 mm rainfall takes place within a span of 3-4 days, which is causing severe flood and drought in subsequent days. Due to deviation in the pattern of rainfall, and prolonged dry periods in non-monsoon months, flow in Odisha’s rivers have reduced drastically. Most of the rivers are lying dry for about two-third of the year,” says Bikash Kumar Pati in “Water Resources of Odisha – Issues and Challenges,” published by Bhubaneswar based NGO Regional Centre for Development Cooperation (RCDC).

Climate change has threatened the rivers and water sources, which are already stressed to meet the human consumption, irrigation, industrial and other commercial demands.

“If we look at the pattern of rainfall of Odisha, we can easily feel the footsteps of climate change. Simply told, rainfall is increasing in areas where more rainfall is a curse, and decreasing in areas which were already drought infested and are on the threshold of becoming arid regions,” Pati adds.

“Industrialisation, leading to deforestation, pollution and unusual carbon emission, has largely impacted the nature as well as the climate,” says Social and developmental activist Dillip Das of Antodaya, who works closely with the tribal communities of Kalahandi district.

Citing that deforestation is one of the largest contributors to climate change, Madhab Chandra Dash, former Chairman of State Pollution Control Board cautions in his research paper titled “A comparison of industrial greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and carbon sink potential of forest vegetation in Orissa, in the context of climate change” and published in “The Ecoscan,” Odisha emits over 164 million tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) whereas GHG neutralization capacity of the forests in Odisha is less than 154 million tonnes.

GHG emission due to thermal power is about 67% in Odisha followed by Iron & Steel sectors that has a share of 20%, says the ENVIS Centre of Odisha’s state of environment, an environmental think-tank body promoted by the Forest and Environment department of Odisha.

While urging that proper siting of industries and expansion and conservation of forest cover should get top priority in the state government development policy and should be reviewed frequently, Dash projects that the GHG emission in the state would cross 493 million tonne by 2020 and, so, State’s forest cover, which acts as a carbon sink and absorbs the Green House Gases (GHGs) generated by industrial and other activities, may just fall short of coping with the spiralling emissions.

Communities hold the key

In this context, a paper titled “Carbon stocks and fluxes for forests in Odisha (India),” written jointly by S. C. Sahu, Jagmohan Sharma and N. H. Ravindranath and published in “Tropical Ecology,” reposes faith on joint management of forests where the forest department and community institutions at village level, called Van Samrakshyan Samiti, are engaged in protection, development and conservation activities.

“This process is harmonizing the unregulated usage of forest by addressing demand-supply situation, and the communities are taking over the role of planner, manager, user and regulator of the forest resource. This forest-securing mechanism is likely to be operationalized over remaining forest areas in Odisha state, which is likely to set up a carbon-conservation regime that would develop carbon-consciousness in use of forest products and forestland,” the paper says.

Developmental Policy Analysts believe that community engagement can play a bigger role in mitigating climate change as they have their own clues to deal with the issues. “But the problem is that their knowledge is never taken into count by our scientific community working in the area, which results in a wide policy gap,” says Vidhya Das of Agragami NGO, who sees a possibility in the blending of imported knowledge with inherited knowledge of the communities.

“Look at the traditional knowledge system and also try to combine more ecologically sound practices, which is the cutting edge technology now. There is conservation agriculture, which is known to sequester carbon into the soil and cut down carbon emissions; there is agro-ecology which is being practised,” Das adds.

But, during these years, community rights and role in management of forests have been curtailed to bring the forest land under government control for industrial and other commercial uses. In fact, forest and environmental issues are seen as deterrent to development. Instead, the government should realise the importance of forest and environment for sustainable development.

Not enough steps taken

The Naveen Patnaik government, however, has initiated some unique measures in direction of carbon sequestration and combating climate change. Odisha is the first Indian state to implement the Climate Change Action Plan and, also, to pilot the project for carbon sequestration through micro-algae technology.

An innovated ground water recharge model is also under implementation in the state. Supervised and monitored by the Watershed Development Mission, awareness activities on the value of rain water and benefits of harvesting it at subsurface level have been intensified at village and community level.

As the energy sector now is the biggest GHG emitter, the government is planning to bring a renewable energy policy in the state and also to promote domestic consumption of clean energy.

Environmentalists and advocates of sustainable development look for more effective planning and programmes for protection of forests and environment as they have a direct link with life and livelihood of people. And, it’s high time for action to conserve the ecosystems and save the environment.

What looks apt mentioning here is the views of billionaire politician and activist Michael Bloomberg, the three time Mayor of New York City, who recently said in an interview to the Times of India, “If you don't focus on the environmental quality you will not be able to fix the economic side. The purpose of government is to help people live longer, happier lives. Yes, you need jobs, you need a lot of things but to say that you need those before you need your health -- I would say if you are dying, you might look back and say that wasn't a good decision.”

The article was published on June 5, 2015, at the HotnHitNews.

[An earlier version of this piece, also authored by me, was published in the review report "15 years of Odisha governance," brought out by Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (WNTA).]

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